Back from oblivion

What does an abused woman need from you, her pastor?

Karen Miller is a pseudonym.

Father, what do I have to look forward to in this marriage 20 or 30 years down the road? Please, I need to know"

Suddenly her prayer was interrupted by the slamming of the door as her husband stomped angrily into the kitchen screaming at her for playing the radio too loudly. What was wrong with her? He was working on the roofdidn't she care about his safety? How could she have heard him if he had needed help?

"Oh," he screamed, "you think you're so perfect, don't you!"

She stared at him, too stunned to say anything. What she saw terrified her even more than the disjointed insults he had just hurled at her. His face was contortedevil; the veins in his neck protruded and pulsed violently.

She felt her danger. He stood between her and the door, and she wasn't even near a window where she could cry out for help. But knowing better than to move, she stood silently rooted to the spot.

Like so many times before, an hour passed before he calmed down. But during that hour she reached a decision that had been more than six years in the making. While he was screaming at herafter the initial terror had worn offshe was declaring in her heart, "You cannot touch me anymore; it is over."

Other than a slap on one occasion, he had never used physical force against her. But like 25 percent of the women within the Christian church at large, she was a victim of domestic violence.

Not only physical abuse

Domestic violence usually takes one of the following forms:

1. Physical abuse—the husband actually assaults his wife by punching, slapping, or beating her, throwing things at her, stabbing her, or in some other way inflicting physical injury on her.

2. Destruction of pets and/or property—the husband beats or kills his wife's animals, damages her car, or interferes with her attempts to better herself through education by destroying her learning tools such as her books and research work.

3. Sexual assault— this form includes the husband forcing his wife into sexual situations against her will.

4. Psychological abuseby constant subtle insults and insinuations, by cutting remarks and rude behavior, or by violent threats and gestures, the husband demoralizes and degrades his wife.

Why do I care about spouse abuse? The answer is simpleI was the woman trapped in that kitchen.

One night a few weeks after we were married, my husband went into a rage and committed a violent act that all but destroyed my self-respect and my respect for him. I cried myself to sleep that night because I knew I could not walk away. I had nowhere to go; he hadn't actually hit me, and my parents had said I was welcome back home only if he beat me. Besides, I did not want to admit failure so soon after the wedding. But during the oppressive darkness of that night I realized I was locked in a prison, and the horror of what had happened threw me headlong into the deep, slimy well of oblivion that so many other women silently occupy.

Like most abused women, I had no job and no access to money. Since my husband took care of all our financial matters, he did not find it necessary to allow me even to sign checks. This kind of control played its role in keeping me demoralized and utterly dependent.

It was not until I stumbled into a job that eventually led me into the field of my training and choice that the slow process of my recovery began. However, even with a job I was not comfortable about building friendships. I was afraid my husband would view them as a threat and things would become worse, rather than better, at home.

Yet through all of this, I did not see myself as an abused woman. I simply felt that I was doing something wrong, that somehow I was not good enough. I felt that this was God's way of punishing me for going ahead with a marriage of which I felt He disapproved. If He had given me this burden to carry, who was I to com plain? I would go on in silence.

Over a period of several years God was able to reach down through my confusion and open my eyes to the greatness of His love. With this insight came the realization that fear is foreign to His nature. At this point my chains nearly broke and I nearly walked away. But my husband threatened to kill himself, and the assurance from our counselor that he was serious blocked my move.

Two years later, on a night just before he was to return from a business trip, I considered ending my own life. How could I possibly go on with such oppressive darkness crushing me? But instead we went for more counseling and had a few months of relative peace. Then came the screaming tirade that fell like an ax on the remains of our marriage. Two days later I moved out of the bedroom. In order to keep up a front to the community and because I was still on a very limited income, we simply occupied different parts of the house. But to me the marriage was over six hellish years after it had begun.

It has been well established that abuse follows a cycle. The first stage is the honeymoon period. This is a time when everything is wonderful. He may treat her like a queen, bring her flowers, take her out to eatdo all the things they did while they were dating. It is this side of her husband that keeps her from leaving.

Tension marks the second stage. He starts getting irritable. She soon learns to watch her step very carefully. She makes sure that the kids are outside or in their rooms when he comes home. She fixes all his favorite foods. Still, she knows that the explosion is coming, and her only hope is that this time it will be a minor one.

The third and final stage is the actual explosion. He blows up for some minor infraction and a lot of imaginary ones. At this point violence becomes apparent.

Then immediately after the explosion he switches back to the honeymoon period. Promises flow like wine, and if he has physically abused her, he applies bandages while they create stories to cover the more obvious cuts and bruises.

Clergy can help

As a member of the clergy, what can you do when confronted with the broken remains of a marriage caught in the stranglehold of abuse? The answer is not a simple one; it will never be cut and dried. But the first step that you must take is the simplest: admit that abuse exists within your church.

Domestic violence knows no bounds. It has infected every walk of life. Every religion has members who abuse and are abused. Every culture, every economic level, every vocationincluding the clergyparticipates in this evil.

For very obvious reasons, women who are victims of abuse soon learn to distrust others. People have hurt them, men in particular. Imagine how dark your future would appear if one minute someone loved you tenderly and the next that same person threw you violently to the floor and kicked you. Among women, about 25 percent of suicide attempts result from domestic violence.

Often, however, an abused woman will allow herself to trust the person who stands before her each week telling her of God's gracious love. If a woman comes to you claiming to be abused, listen to her. She needs someone who will understand her and pray with her. Remember that you may be her last hope.

Do not second-guess her. Do not condemn her to her marriage by threatening to remove her name from the church books if she leaves her husband. And don't challenge her to "love him back." She is probably so drained of love that there is simply nothing left to love with. Instead, over a period of time, encourage her to forgive him.

Remember, we are in a sinful world. Satan will do anything to destroy, and even if he does not manage to destroy her body, through her husband he may be able to do the one thing that we must all fearhe may be able to destroy her mind and soul.

At this point, as a member of the clergy, you should not be so concerned about saving the marriage as about salvaging the soul. Yet it is not your job to condemn the marriage, either. You must allow her to make that painful decision on her own, but she must know that you support her.

The typical abused woman is not the type who easily gives up hope on another person. Though deep in her heart she is probably aware that he is not likely to change, she is forever believing that if she stays just a little longer, he will. Yet if he does decide to change, it is not she who will change him. It will usually require his firm decision, outside counselingand God's help.

Often, the mere fact that she does not leave encourages her husband to continue his progressively more violent cycle of abuse. Since he knows she will not leave, why should he change? Abuse has become such a part of him that it takes a major shock before he will admit his problem. Often only the shock of her walking out the door is sufficient to awaken him.

Abused women are amazingly tough. To survive, they have to be. But they are also extremely dependent women everything they have comes from their husbands. I often thought What would I do if I left? Of course, that question reveals that I had forgotten God's promise to take care of me. When I did leave, God provided.

Don't be a hero

Remember, as the term domestic violence implies, violence is what you are dealing with. Don't try to be a hero. Approximately 25 percent of the law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty were killed while dealing with domestic violence. So be mindful that abuse can be deadly.*

You should become familiar with the social services available in your area. Find out what help is available to women who are abused and learn what the criminal penalties are for the abuser. Seek out groups that meet to help abusive men and find out if they have a training program in which you can learn how to handle domestic violence within your church.

Let these social services know that you are interested in helping where you can. I often hear the social service agencies asking, "Where are the clergy? We have their wounded, and we feel that if they knew about abuse they could handle these Christian women much better than we can."

Some victims of domestic violence cannot escape the memory of what has happened to them. But others totally deny that the assaults have taken place. Such denial will never allow them to make the changes they must to end the abuse. Abused women must come to face the reality of what is happening to them and of the damage they are suffering.

If an abused woman who comes to you feels the need of repeating again and again the stories of the assaults against her, let her do so. This telling will help her get what has happened out in the open and will help her face reality. It will also help her ventilate the anger of being hurt so deeply by the one she loves.

Encourage her to attend a support group for battered women. These meetings will help her to recognize that she is not alone, that there are others who understand the pain she has experienced.

One major point you must understand is that the battered woman must lead a double life just to survive. She must stand straight and smile in public, while in private she is forced to bow down and cry. She will find it very difficult to reverse this so that she can stand straight before her husband without fear while allowing herself to admit to those around her what has happened. However, if she can talk to other women who have been battered and have broken the cycle, she may be able to summon the courage to stand up and take whatever action must be taken. At this point you can best help her by supporting her and encouraging her to move forward carefully.

Phone number for help

For women who live in rural areas, reaching out for help has been even more difficult simply because any phone calls they made searching for help usually were toll calls. This in turn meant that when the phone bill came, the woman making such a call would have to explain to her spouse why she had made a long-distance call and to whom she had talked.

However, on October 1, 1987, Johnson and Johnson Company funded and cosponsored with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence the first nationwide 24-hour toll-free hot line. Trained personnel who offer counsel, understanding, and referrals to shelters in the victim's area staff this hotline. Calls made there will remain confidential and will not appear on the phone bill at the end of the month.

This number, 1-800-333-SAFE, will no doubt prove to be a lifesaver for millions of women.

It takes courage for a battered woman to come into your office and ask for help. It took me six years to call my pastor.

Then, even though he is probably one of the kindest people I know, I was still frightened when I walked into his office and sat down. I was terrified that he would tell me that somehow I had to make my marriage work.

But instead of condemning me, he listened. He asked questions when he did not understand something. Then when I looked up and saw tears in his eyes, I knew my fears of condemnation were groundless. The comfort that the feeling of being valued as a person gave me is beyond words.

Just before I left his office, he asked to pray with me. We knelt together, and while he prayed I soaked the carpet with my tears. He was the first counselor who had prayed with me since the nightmare had begun. Down deep inside I sensed that this horrible chapter in my life would soon end.

When a battered woman comes into your office, listen to her. Let her cry. Support her and pray with her. Never ask her what she did to upset her husbanddoing so will only confirm her in her belief that his actions are her fault.

Over the long term, dealing with her fear and anger will give her more trouble than anything else she will have to face during her recovery. Encourage her to send up little emergency prayers when she feels herself being engulfed by either of these.

Encourage her to become involved in the church, and encourage other women in the church to include her in their activities. She will probably be a little shy at first, but once she knows she is welcome, wanted, and valued, she will be able to gain new strength and confidence from her friends.

An abused woman grows and heals slowly. The wounds that she has received are deep, and the scars will remain for years. You must not let her become totally dependent upon you. But if you let her know that you care and that you believe in her, you will probably see her slowly and painfully extract herself from the abusive situation and become a new person.

Above all, do not condemn her. Allow her to come back from oblivion.

*Some people wonder why a woman would turn on someone who has come to her rescue. Bizarre as it may seem, it is simply one of her defenses. She fears that later, when her husband gets her away from the scene of the crime, he will beat or belittle her even worse because she did not come to his rescue and save him from embarrassment.


Recommended reading

Holly Wagner Green. Turning Fear to Hope. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984. Presents a Christian perspective on how to deal with abusive marriages.

Theresa Saldana. Beyond Survival. New York: Bantam Books, 1986. Addresses the emotional trauma and the process of healing that vic tims of violent crimes go through on their way to recovery.

Daniel Jay Sonkin and Michael Durphy. Learning to Live Without Violence. San Francisco: Volcano Press, 1982. Presents steps people can take to break the cycle of violence.

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Karen Miller is a pseudonym.

July 1989

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